No matter how many interviews a candidate has undertaken, it is not uncommon for us to find law firms claiming the final decision came down to ‘cultural fit’. The candidate’s CV may have ticked all the right boxes, they might have done all the necessary research, and performed well at interview. But for all their effort, it came down to something as amorphous as the right ‘fit’.

And it is painful because it feels personal. At best, you might assume that citing the ‘right cultural fit’ is laziness on the law firm’s part to supply any kind of meaningful or constructive feedback. But, at worst, could falling at this hurdle mean that someone simply doesn’t like you?

While personality tests and assessment tools are increasingly used to determine if a candidate will mesh into a company’s culture, personal feelings about a candidate at interview still loom large.

Lauren A Rivera, an associate professor at Northwestern University, recently studied the hiring practices of investment banks, management consultancies and law firms in the US. Writing in the New York Times, she notes: ‘Fit was not about a match with organisational values. It was about personal fit. In these time-and team-intensive jobs, professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships with.’

She added that interviewers commonly relied on chemistry, with a member of one law firm’s hiring committee describing the interview as like being on a date: ‘You kind of know when there’s a match.’

On the face of it, this might not be a bad thing. Colleagues who get on and work well together must surely be more productive. But this may not be the case.

In a US study, ‘Better Decisions Through Diversity’, it was found that more diverse teams outperform homogenous ones. The diverse groups tend to make better decisions, while the more homogenous groups simply tend to agree with one another, or at least they pretend to, so difficult conversations are brushed aside.

And relying on the personal and subjective view of a hiring manager does little to help diversity generally. Cultural fit becomes yet another barrier. While there is greater awareness of equality and inclusiveness, unconscious bias still slips in. According to the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, there remains a tendency for managers to hire ‘mini-me’s’. People gravitate towards those most like themselves in terms of hobbies, experiences and dress.

But for all its dangers, cultural fit is important. And not just to law firms, but also – and perhaps especially – to candidates. A firm’s culture encompasses a wide variety of areas, from autonomy and work/life balance to levels of formality and dress code. No one wants to start a job only to find they hate the environment. And firms don’t want to have to repeat a time-consuming recruitment process when a new hire quits after a month.

Candidates should do their research and actually speak to those within the firm to find out what the day-to-day culture is like. Then be honest with themselves about whether this is a place where they can thrive.

For hiring managers, a ‘values fit’ may be a more useful way to approach the process than the more gut-instinct feeling of cultural fit. When everyone shares the same overall vision, personality and background become unimportant; everyone strives for the same goal – how they get there matters less.

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